Friday, January 31, 2014

Just a Little Place by the Sea

People have been asking me questions about where I live in KAUST.  Do I live in a girls only dorm?  Are men and women segregated? Does your place have a kitchen or do you have to eat in the community cafeteria?

The answer to all of these is "no." Although, for the students there are girls and boys only dorms that I haven't been inside, but I'm assuming they are nice.  And there is an amazing cafeteria on the campus that I've tried once.  With all the options and various stations by country, it reminded me of the Marche in Toronto.

So where do I live?  I live in a townhouse by myself -- just like I would in the U.S. or Canada -- except this one is a lot bigger than what I'm used to and I have my own garage to put my imaginary car.

And I have a palm tree, which I love.  Any place with a palm tree has got to be great.

If you live here without a family, I think you get this size of townhouse.  Families get bigger ones or detached homes.  They all kind of look similar in style so it's easy to get lost.

Check out these hallways made for giants.

Notice I have my lovely Home Depot bag on the table that I use for my groceries.  They are trying to be plastic bag free at KAUST, so everyone has a reusable bag to do their bit to help the environment.  I might be the only one that arrived with my own.

They also are big into recycling everything, and I read in one of the documents that they will call you out if you're a "baddie" when it comes to sorting your trash.

The living room area.  There's a TV here and one in the bedroom.  There are maybe a dozen English stations -- and they play a lot of "Family Guy", "CSI: Miami and NY" and movies.  The movies range from "Betwitched", "Men in Black", and "Sleeping With the Enemy", to more recent ones like "Running With Scissors."

The kitchen!  So many cabinets, so little dishes.

The dining area.  The table actually had a leaf and two more chairs, but I felt like I was sitting in a boardroom when working there. So I removed the leaf and put the two chairs in my storage room. I didn't bother taking a photo of that -- or the laundry room as you really don't need to see my washer and dryer.

Giant window leading up to the upstairs. I love the giant window. Makes me feel like I'm living in a mansion in Beverly Hills.

Another photo of the giant window from the second flight of stairs.

A partial view of the bedroom. There is also a desk area in the room and the double wardrobe area is in another section with the master bedroom bathroom.  Again, I didn't bother with photos as it's not exciting.

Then there are three mystery doors down the hallway that are locked.  They told me they were the maid's quarters so I don't need access to them -- but I think they are scary.  You just know there's a Stephen King story about them somewhere.

That's about it.  I can't complain about the townhouse at all.  It's clean, more than big enough and the furniture is comfortable.  There's also a back yard that's pretty big too.  I haven't done anything in it yet, so it looks a little desolate.

I live about 3 blocks from the beach area and the gym, which works out perfectly.  The gym also has this amazing cheesecake in their cafe area.  It's a little dangerous, but gives me a reason to go there and workout.

Now if only I could convince Whole Foods to set up a market here (with Saudi - not "imported from the US" - prices). Then it  truly would be paradise.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Where the Heck Are You and What is KAUST?

The canal and the student dorms.
Okay, I’ve been getting lots of questions from all of you so I thought I would answer a few of them.

 I’ve already answered the “Do you have to be covered all the timequestion and the  “Can you still text me question in previous blogs.  So here’s the next question…


Yup, I’ve moved. This time I’m in Saudi Arabia working at KAUST. KAUST stands for King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and it’s a very cool place - in a very hot country.  It's already feeling like Phoenix in May, but with killer humidity because we are on the Red Sea. I feel like we are on an island because of the palm trees and the water, but we're not.

The mosque by the campus.  I find the singing sort of soothing.
We're located about 100 km north of Jeddah (about an hour away) and maybe 20 minutes from a fishing village called Thuwal that I have not been to yet, but some of their people will be here doing  a fresh fish market next Saturday (which sounds like a farmer's market with seafood). There is nothing in between us and Jeddah except 100 km of boring desert.  I'm talking real desert and not the pretty desert in Arizona.  This is desert like the ones you see on TV.  Just sand.

In other words, we are away from the main city and are kind of in our own little world, which is what KAUST is all about.


KAUST isn't a compound, but a village. In fact, the word compound has never been mentioned.  There's already a few thousand people living here and it's growing monthly. It's similar to a retirement community like Fountain Hills in Arizona or those ones in Florida that are self-sustained.

But the big difference is that instead of people over 55, it's full of science and techie people from all over the world.

I think of it as the new Eureka (the Syfy channel TV series). In the TV series, Eureka was an experimental make-believe town in Northern California created by the government for scientists and computer experts to do their research and live.

It was basically a man-made utopia.  There was the main work building called GD and then all the stuff around the town to make up the community like the coffee shop, the garage, the school for the scientists’ kids, etc.

It’s a great series that you should watch on Netflix if you haven’t seen it.

The KAUST Beacon. It looks amazing at night.
KAUST is similar and is also a man-made utopia that began 5 years ago -- except instead of being located in California it’s located in Saudi Arabia. AND instead of the village being modeled after a quaint American town, it’s like a giant tropical resort on the ocean. How could you not love that?

The whole project is based on the concept of bringing together students and faculty (and their families) who love science and technology -- and who are open minded and see learning as a global language without cultural boundaries.

The campus is state-of-the-art, and there are two grocery stores, a movie theater, 3 fitness clubs, a golf club, a whole load of restaurants and shops, a hospital, fire department, bank, hair salon, travel agency, and of course, a mosque.

There's also a great beach and opportunities to go on fishing expeditions and diving excursions as we are right beside the Red Sea Coral Reef. They tell me night diving is spectacular.

We have out own bus system to help us get place to place, but people also bicycle and drive.  There is also bus system that brings us to the Jeddah a couple times a day.

Check out the interactive KAUST Map
Check out photos of KAUST

Map of KAUST


As mentioned, there's already a few thousand people living here and it's growing.  They are building new homes now to accommodate more people as they estimate there will be approximately 10,000 people living here in a few years.  The official language of KAUST is English and people have come from China, Canada, US, Australia, Europe, and the Philappines -- just to name a few.  There's definitely a  mishmash of cultures.

But even though we are a hybrid village, we are in Saudi so we try to be respectful to the culture by not wearing short shorts, practicing other religions or eating in front of people during their fasting time (that's just mean).  These aren't big things and you'll find the rest of the place feels pretty normal -- except there is no alcohol or bacon. Although, they do serve this beef bacon that my co-worker says is pretty good.

One of the pools by the beach.
Plus, there are a number of things that we can do in KAUST that you can't do when you go to Jeddah or other Saudi cities such as wear your normal clothes in public, wear a bathing suit at the beach, drive a car as a woman, go to a movie theater (theaters are not allowed in the rest of the country so this is big deal) and shop in the afternoon (Jeddah closes down in the afternoon for prayers and stuff. They reopen at 5 p.m.).

It's actually cool being a part of the experiment while it's still in the growing stages.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Texting and Email: Communicating from Saudi Arabia

People forget that Saudi Arabia is considered a newly industrialized country. It's modern and very tech savvy. So yes, internet works fine and it’s fast.


Texting also works – but I would have to pay extra for overseas texts….I think. I might be wrong on this, but because I had to pay extra to text from the US to Canada, I'm assuming the same rules would apply for texting from Saudi Arabia to the US.

So I’m currently experimenting with the following FREE ways to text people or send photos to friends:

1) WhatsApp

2) Facebook Messenger

3) Skype IM

4) iMessaging and FaceTime (free if your friends have an iPhone)

All of the above work, but I'm finding with some of them, you end up with some texts from "creepers" who text random women they find on Facebook, etc.  I'm still figuring out the privacy and security features to prevent this.  But can't really complain as they are free.


Yes, I can call people, but again, it’s expensive so I’m planning to use Skype and Facebook. KAUST interviewed me through Skype and it worked fine. Some people here say they are using Vonage to call home -- so that is another option.

I ended up getting Magic Jack -- which has turned out to be amazing.  Magic Jack gives you a US number and you can call any number in the US and Canada for free from anywhere in the world.  You could access from your computer, but I used the Magic Jack App on my phone so as long as I have Wifi, I can call people whenever.

Email also works including Facebook emails. In other words, I’m not feeling deprived on how to communicate with people. It’s mostly the time change that sucks. I’m 10 hours ahead of Phoenix so when I’m up, my friends and family are sleeping.

The technology is the same as in the US, although my iPhone 4 is completely obsolete here so they are more advanced in some areas and have all the techno gadgets you could want. Once I get an iPhone 5, I’ll buy a sim card (no crazy locked-in contracts here) and I’ll be able to tell you more about the fees for texting overseas – and if it’s still free to iMessage iPhone-to-iPhone (even to people in the US), which will be good news to my fellow iPhone users and my mom who loves her iPad.

I will have a new phone number though as Verizon wouldn’t let me keep it. I'm planning to get my new number next week as I'm learning that Saudi Arabia does everything via cell phone.  In fact, I can't get a mail box or bank account without a mobile phone number as it seems the transactions are all through that.


Yes, they have cable TV. My townhouse comes with a complimentary package that has over 300 stations from Asia, Europe and a couple US stations. There is also an additional cable package I can buy that will give me all the US stations. Those that have it say you get the shows one day after they air in the US which is pretty good. I haven’t looked into it yet as I’m not a big TV watcher.

There is also the option to purchase a US IP address for $60 a year that will give me access to US Netflix and other sites. I got PureVPN which has been pretty good.  The only limitations so far is that for some reason I can't watch videos on HULU or I can get Spotify, Pandora CBS, FOX and NBC. So no more Castle for me, but lots of Grimm and Blacklist.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

To Wear or Not to Wear the Robe and Veil

Me in my Abaya (and really bad hair)
Before moving to Saudi Arabia, I skyped, emailed and phoned numerous women who had lived at KAUST or were still living there. I wanted to know what it was like to be a woman living in the area – and if I would have to wear the abaya and jihab (the robe and veil). The answer was “yes” and “no.”

On the KAUST campus, which is really a village, I would not have to wear the robe. I could wear my normal western clothes to work, I could wear shorts to work out, and I could wear a bikini to the beach if I wanted to – although they recommended a one-piece or tankini just to respectful to the other cultures also living on the campus. 

However, I'm just going to tell you that I did spend $100 on a boring bathing suit and I never wore it the whole time I lived at KAUST. When I went snorkeling, I  usually wore my bikini bottom with a surfer's rash guard top just because it was so hot and I was afraid of getting sunburned.  

At the campus there were women's only pools and bathing decks where you can wear whatever you want. And even in the family pools, there was a mix of bathing suits.

So when did I have to follow the rules and be covered?  When I left the campus.  So when I went to the city of Jeddah, I would have to wear the abaya (the robe -- which doesn't have to be black by the way). The veil was optional. I didn’t have to wear it, but was handy to have with me just in case. In fact, I only wore the veil if by myself and the only Westerner in the area -- and not because I had too, but because my blonde hair was such a novelty to people that I usually got second looks and people often wanted to take their photo with me. So I covered in an attempt to "blend."


Clair Sale, who has been my lifesaver for the trip, told me the one thing she wished she had with her on the plane was the robe. So I bought one ….in Phoenix.

It was hard to find because if you’ve been to Phoenix, you don’t see anyone wearing them. I googled Halal meat shops in the city and found Alzohour Market on Yelp. I went there and asked the woman if she knew where to buy abayas in the area. She happened to have a selection.

And yes, I did consider buying on online, but I didn’t know my size and because I’m tall, I was afraid it would be too short.

The woman showed me a bunch of abayas and I was a little shocked at how expensive they were. My budget was $25, but the cheapest they had were $100. I was also surprised how decorative they were. When I checked the online news for Jeddah to see what people wore, they looked like they were wearing plain black ones. The woman assured that I would want one with something on it – and that there were designer abayas and everything. I trusted her and found one with gold sleeves that I actually love. I feel like a judge or high priestess in it.

So now I’m at Heathrow with my fancy abaya stuffed in my knapsack. My plane for Jeddah is arriving in an hour. Do I wear it now? Do I stay western? Do I wait and put it on just before we land?

I looked around the gate and every person there was dressed in the robe. The women were in black and the men in white. There wasn’t one Western person in the group. Hmm…robe it is.

PS. While I suffered the 6 hours wearing the robe and trying to sleep on the red-eye to Jeddah without strangling myself with the veil, it turned out it wasn’t necessary. About an hour before we landed the pilot came on the speaker and said we were entering Saudi air space. He said that they would now stop serving alcohol (crap, should have taken advantage of the free wine until then) and that if we wanted, it was time to put the customary robes for the landing.

Next time I’ll be more relaxed. But I was glad Clair told me to pack it. I did feel less of an outsider with it on.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Simple Pleasures of British Airways

I'm now into hour 2 of my 9 hour red-eye flight from Phoenix to London and I am loving British Airways. Except for the unexpected $95 free for having a second suitcase (only 1 bag is allowed), the service has been fab.

First of all there is free wine with dinner. Yay! Then free dinner. Yay! And it was chicken curry. I love curry and haven’t had any good stuff since leaving Toronto 8 years ago.

Then there’s the tea. I may be Canadian, but I have my Scottish grandmother’s blood and tea is my drink. Normally, plane tea sucks. It tastes like luke-warm microwaved water. This is not the case on British Airways. It’s tastes like real steeped tea. AND they come around with a brewed pot of it like US planes do with coffee. I’m in tea heaven.

Of course, I will be going to the bathroom 20 times during the flight – because all good things must come to an end.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Moving overseas is not Easy-Peasy

My pilot’s name is George Michael. Not THE George Michael, but still I find this amusing.

Finally I am on my way to Saudi and the preparations have been crazy – from the intense medical exam, to the rush of selling everything I own, to the emotional heart break of saying goodbye to my friends, family and boyfriend. Most of these have been supportive with this move, but not everyone -- which has made it even harder.

Let me just say moving overseas is not like moving from Canada to the U.S. or from state-to-state. I’ve done those and it was easy. Moving to another country is a little intense.

First of all, you have to part with everything like your furniture, your car and your apartment. I thought about putting it all in storage, but when doing the math, I figured in a year I would be spending $2000 for storage and then if I came back and didn't find a job in Phoenix, I would have to transport all my stuff to the new city which is usually another $2500.

Is my stuff really worth $5000? Do I really love my sofa and bed so much that I can't get a new one later on? No. Not really.

So now all I own 6 boxes of personal goods like fine China from my mom, a few pieces of art and some clothes. That’s it. I feel really light and uncomplicated now.

Secondly, you have to be prepared to get ripped off – a lot. I detest the Craigslisters who took advantage of me when they offered me only $550 for my practically new $1800 sofa that was still under warranty. And the girl who bought my California King luxury pillow top bed (with the stuffed leather headboard and silk sheets) for $350 and nearly made me cry. I think I may still be paying off the $1,600 that bed cost me. But I was desperate. I had two weeks to sell and no other options.

Then there’s the paperwork, which I am still panicked about. I got my temporary visa okay. It took three months to get all the stuff needed for it and the stamp. I thought I was done. But then I realized I needed a few different papers for my work visa. Yeah…If you are married or divorced and don’t live in the same state (or country) where you did the deed, start working on this 6 weeks out. I’m in week three of am still waiting on the authentication as these documents needed to be signed by the state, the U.S. government and the Saudi Embassy.

Did I mention that I’m already on the plane? Yup, I’m going and I’m waiting on papers – STILL. Yes, I am stressed. Very stressed.

But I see light the end of this whirlwind tunnel and I hope it shines on some peace. In the meantime, I'm going to fasten my seatbelt and listen to what George Michael has to say.

Oh…and in case you are wondering. I have not had time to learn Arabic (I did buy the CDs though). I have not learned how to wrap my veil (hijab) – but I have it in my knapsack. And I have not had time to change all my credit cards to overseas travel. What I am is a massive ball of nerves. Touch me and I may break.